New Jersey election officials sued over violation of free speech, privacy laws

CAMDEN, N.J. (Sept. 12, 2019) – A lawsuit filed today against New Jersey election officials aims to strike down a new state law that puts at risk individuals who support certain advocacy organizations.

In June, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a proposal known as S150, which requires certain advocacy organizations to submit to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission personal information about those who support them. The law also requires these advocacy organizations to identify themselves as the sponsors of certain public messages. The law applies to 501(c)4 and 527 advocacy groups, but not business groups or unions.

“New Jersey’s law is biased against certain organizations and citizens,” said Patrick Hughes, president and co-founder of the Liberty Justice Center, the nonprofit litigation firm representing the plaintiff in the new lawsuit. “The Commission is given carte blanche to require ‘any other information’ they believe necessary. These requirements are wrong and an unconstitutional intrusion on the privacy of Americans.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Illinois Opportunity Project, a nonpartisan, 501(c)4 organization that engages in issue advocacy. The Illinois Opportunity Project is represented in this case by attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center, best known for its 2018 Supreme Court win in the case Janus v. AFSCME.

Illinois Opportunity Project v. Holden was filed on Sept. 11, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Camden Division.

“The Illinois Opportunity Project is committed to upholding the First Amendment right of free speech and equal treatment under the law,” said Matthew Besler, president of the Illinois Opportunity Project. “We participate in public discourse and policy discussions to affect change and improve lives. We oppose any efforts to deter individuals from voicing their opinions and will continue to fight so individuals can participate in public discourse without fear of retaliation.”

All Americans have the right to privacy and should be free to support causes they believe in without excessive reporting requirements which open them up to possible harassment. Additionally, the law must be applied equally to all similar actors. The unequal disclosure and reporting requirements in New Jersey are discriminatory and effectively favor certain types of political speech and groups.

Background: In June 2019, New Jersey enacted S150. The original bill was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy, but the Governor signed it into law after a veto override threat from the Legislature.

The law now requires only certain organizations providing factual and opinion information about legislation to register with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission as an “independent expenditure committee.”

Organizations singled out by the law are required to do the following or face civil penalties:

  • Disclose members and supporters to the Commissioners of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
  • Provide a quarterly financial report to the Commission that includes the name, mailing address, occupation, employer and employer address for any individual contributing over a certain dollar amount to the organization.
  • Include a disclaimer of issue-ad sponsorship on communications.
  • Register as “independent expenditure committees” even when communications are issue-focused and do not mention candidate names.

Illinois Opportunity Project is concerned that compelled disclosure of its members and supporters could lead to substantial personal and economic repercussions for its contributors. Across the country, individual and corporate donors to political candidates and issue causes are being subject to boycotts, harassment, protests, career damage and even death threats for publicly engaging in the public square.  Illinois Opportunity Project fears that its members and supporters may also encounter similar reprisals if their donations are made public, while supporters of union and business organizations are protected from the same scrutiny.

This statute has come under considerable scrutiny by organizations of all political stripes. Legal challenges have been mounted by Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

The case is available here: https://libertyjusticecenter.org/cases/illinois-opportunity-project-v-holden